|What do you mean they’ve cast him? He’s, like, five years
It’s Christmas, 2008. X Factor winner Alexandra Burke is at number one with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” narrowly beating Jeff Buckley’s version, which charted in an attempt to thwart The X Factor from taking the Christmas number one. The remainder of the charts are basically unchanged since earlier in the month, save for Geraldine’s “Once Upon a Christmas Song” and a different choice of Beyonce singles. In news, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama’s former Senate seat, 1400 people lose their jobs in Ireland due to a crisis caused by pork contaminated with dioxin, and Woolworths announces that it will be closing all of its stores.
On television, meanwhile, it’s the fourth new series Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Next Doctor. It is difficult to list anything that’s especially awful about The Next Doctor. David Morrissey is a fine actor, and while he is shamelessly hamming here, it is a skilled execution of the style that is inappropriate neither for the part nor the occasion. Indeed, it is almost preferable to call his performance charcuterie – a distinction without any difference in meaning, but with considerable difference in implication. The plot moves along with reasonable efficiency. There are funny bits, there are moments of quality drama, and the whole thing is good fun.
Why, then, does it feel so hollow? Even this is, perhaps, unfair. It’s hard to argue seriously that this is the nadir of the Davies era. Most people hate Planet of the Dead more, it seems. But for my money, and we’re getting ahead of ourselves slightly here, Planet of the Dead never purported to be anything other than a frothy romp written by Gareth Roberts. The Next Doctor, on the other hand, presented itself as altogether more significant.
The key step in this came on October 29th, two days after Secrets of the Stars wrapped, as David Tennant announced his departure from Doctor Who. This did not exactly surprise anybody – ever since the announcement that 2009 would consist of a run of specials instead of a full season of Doctor Who, the consensus speculation was that Tennant was leaving. Davies already played with this once with the regeneration cliffhanger of The Stolen Earth, and with the knowledge that Moffat was taking over the default assumption was that Tennant was leaving. But that was only true among the tiny portion of the audience who actually followed Doctor Who news closely. For the wider public, it was not until the 29th that the speculation over who the next Doctor would be properly ramped up.
Davies, of course, anticipated this fully, and designed The Next Doctor to played ludicrously with that speculation. And he succeeded wildly, with David Morrissey being the bookmaker’s favorite for the part. Almost anyone paying close attention assumed the truth – that Morrissey was being employed in a story distantly derived from Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman’s Colin Baker audio The One Doctor – but the general mood was nevertheless one highlighting this episode as significant and major.
And, of course, this is the episode that follows from Journey’s End. In 2007 the Christmas special garnered the new series’ highest ever ratings with its most spectacular bit of stunt casting ever, namely Kylie Minogue. This time, with considerably less ostentatious casting, the series pulls in almost the same ratings, a feat that further highlights the extent to which Doctor Who is, at this point in its history, simply a massive cultural institution in a way it had never truly been before. Attempting to understand The Next Doctor merely as a story is folly – it exists first and foremost as part of Doctor Who’s own paratext. More than any other story, it is not one that is a story about the Doctor, but rather one that is a story about the ongoing progress o Doctor Who as a cultural object in the UK at large.
Given this, there is something odd about the story itself. It makes it all of fifteen minutes before it starts to suggest strongly that David Morrissey is not, in fact, playing the Doctor. And that plot resolves entirely at the half-hour mark, leaving it a full half hour to be a lengthy Victorian romp with Cybermen. There is something disappointing about this, to say the least. And yet the disappointment reveals a larger issue.
The Cybermen, after all, are the epitome of business as usual for Doctor Who. They are the monsters Doctor Who turns to when it is time to bring back an old monster. They are epic without substance – the event that gets trotted out for the sake of being an event. They are not the only monsters this can be done with, certainly, but they are the ones that hit the strange balance of being a big enough deal to qualify as an actual cultural event (look how the ratings spiked for Rise of the Cybermen…) while still, at the end of the day, being a bit rubbish and hollow (and fell again for The Age of Steel). And so seeing them trotted out for the post-Journey’s End Christmas special speaks volumes about the nature of this story and the way in which the series is conceiving of itself.
And to be fair, there’s nothing wrong as such with this. Journey’s End was a titanic success. If there’s ever been a point where the series has a license to just calmly be itself it’s now. A kinda duff Cybermen story with some sparkly Victorian visuals seems like the epitome of what should follow it – a mashed up bit of Doctor Who as usual that is exactly what the giddy narcissism of Journey’s End seemed to foreshadow. And if one stops to look, Davies is, as usual, being more careful and interesting than you’d expect. Victorian England at Christmas is an obvious pick, but Davies doesn’t focus on the gentry, from which Victorian Christmas imagery usually hails. The opening sequence of the Doctor grinning and walking around a Victorian setting is notable for its focus on a wealth of different classes. It is, of course, aggressively ahistorical – Davies’s usual multiracial historical fantasy is in play, and he’s unabashedly juxtaposing bits of Victorian culture into a single overly crowded street scene. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that this is a Victorian-era story about child labor and workhouses, which is, to say the least, not the most expected setup for “Victorian-era Christmas story.”
But in another sense, we’re running into a problem we’ve seen before. At least twice, in fact. In both 1973 and 1983, Doctor Who did triumphant celebrations of itself. And they were successful. Doctor Who reaffirmed the fact that the British public at large quite liked having Doctor Who around. The problem is that neither 1984 nor 1974 were very good years for Doctor Who at all. In the case of 1984, the problem was admittedly the climactic festering of a rot that had been setting in for years. In 1974 the problem was subtler – a point when one particular vision of the program simply got long in the tooth.
But in each case the problem was basically the same – the ecstatic hype of the massive celebration faded not just into business as usual, but into a particularly expected and, dare we say it, banal business as usual. And that, in many ways, is the real problem with The Next Doctor – it feels like the Davies era as assembled by committee. Heartstring yanking, spectacle, and some show-off effects sequences that are there just to cackle about how Doctor Who has a budget now. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing right with it either. It’s Doctor Who on autopilot. The fact that it was recorded at the end of the Series Four production block, after Davies had written himself half to death with the finale doesn’t help, one supposes, but that’s just speculative excuse making.
Business as usual would not have been a problem in and of itself, of course. At worst it would leave us with relatively little to say. But instead we have an episode built around hype and speculation. It is one thing to do a kind of straightforward Cyberman romp in Victorian England for Christmas. Reasonable, even – it’s a perfectly nice big picture bit of Christmas fluff, which, while no fan’s first choice for a Christmas special (or any other episode), is a perfectly reasonable choice for a major television show looking to air an episode on Christmas. It is quite another, however, to do a John Nathan-Turner style “the Doctor’s Wife” bit of hype and then pay it off with a duff Cybermen runaround.
Because there isn’t really a satisfying payoff to the title. The Next Doctor turns out to in fact be a character we only meet in hindsight – a man who believes himself to be the Doctor, but is in fact just an ordinary man. There’s a real narrative problem with Jackson Lake in this regard. We never really meet him – he’s only defining trait is that he’s not actually the Doctor. His wife is literally just a fridge – a female character whose sole trait is being murdered so as to traumatize a male star. (Seriously. We learn nothing about her except that she’s been traumatically and violently murdered.) His son exists to not be fridged, which is even stranger – he’s introduced purely for the purpose of saying “he’s not dead!” The only character in all of this that actually comes off as interesting or developed is Rosita, and even with her there’s the unnerving suggestion that Lake only picked her as his companion because her name was similar to Rose’s. And Rosita, of course, is the one we don’t find out about in any detail.
Much of the Tennant era has been about the theme of arrogance and hubris. And here, perhaps, is where the show crosses its own line. Here the show becomes every bit as hubristic as it ultimately condemns Tennant’s Doctor for being. It serves up an episode that simply doesn’t bother to do anything beyond the minimum requirements, and hypes it as being something massive and substantial. It’s not awful – Doctor Who is a reasonably likable show even at mediocre level, and The Next Doctor, arrogant and frustrating as it may be, is far from the awful let-down of The Monster of Peladon, Death to the Daleks, Warriors of the Deep, or The Twin Dilemma. But nevertheless, there’s a sense that Doctor Who doesn’t actually have any ideas here.
It’s telling that this is the episode where we finally get the “all ten Doctors” montage. Because all it has to do is revel in its past. (And it’s a past that only narrowly makes sense. One can construct explanations as to why the Cybus-style Cybermen have an infostamp containing information on all ten Doctors, but anything one comes up with is a slapdash fan explanation to cover a clear gaffe.) There’s nothing left for the Davies era to do other than explore relatively obvious combinations of ideas that it happens to have not actually done before.
It’s not some fatal blow – some sign that the era must be cast down and torn apart so that something new may arise. But it is a sign that it’s time for the end – that this particular vision of what Doctor Who can be has run its course, and that its best days are behind it. There’s still fun to be had, but it is an OK time to say goodbye.
But if there is a redemption to be had for The Next Doctor, it is this: for all the hubris involved in this particular episode, the truth is that its hype and letdown are only a problem because the ending of the Davies-style approach to Doctor Who is coming to an end. It’s the fact that the Davies era is in the process of being replaced by the Moffat era that makes this episode’s tease and letdown so disappointing. It comes at a point where we really might learn who the next Doctor is – indeed, barely a week after this episode aired we did. The biggest problem with The Next Doctor, then, is that it’s not actually a part of that ending. The end of the Davies era is something worth considering – it is, after all, still very good, and certainly has a glorious finale in it. The beginning of the Moffat era is something worth considering. But this middling moment that is unwilling to commit to either camp is, in some ways, the most disposable and ephemeral bit of the Davies era. It’s an episode that only makes sense in the context of the speculation that existed at the end of 2008 – that was only even remotely worth doing in the course of the ten week gap between Tennant announcing his retirement and the announcement of Matt Smith. From any other perspective, it is in effect an hour-long teaser for something we’ve all already seen.